Devon Prize (2016/17) - Bye Bye Birdie by Orlando Murrin

Bye Bye Birdie 
by Orlando Murrin

If I’m really, really quiet, they won’t know I’m here. Maybe, if I stay here long enough, they’ll forget I existed. I’ll hold my breath and float away into oblivion – or whatever happens when you’re dead. 

     A woman – grey hair gathered into a bun, eyes screwed shut - crouches in the shadows of a garden shed. She curls herself into a tight ball, as she has seen woodlice do, hoping she can’t be seen behind the lawnmower. Footsteps. The door creaks, daylight slices through the dark. 

     Beryl can sense his presence, smell his spicy aftershave. She suppresses the urge to gag. After what feels like an eternity, he turns and goes out, slamming the door behind him. 

     Her eyes adjust slowly to the darkness. What happens now? She can’t stay here forever. You can’t live off grass seed and Miracle Gro. 

     Then she sees it – the red petrol can she uses to fill the lawnmower, with a rag tucked in the handle. Did she remember to fill it up, though? She lifts it with a shaking hand and hears the splosh of petrol. Thank God.

It started a year ago, after the death of Beryl’s husband. Their detached house was far too large for her - two floors plus a big attic conversion - so she had the attic floor converted into a self-contained flat. The light was good and it had a spacious roofdeck with a lovely view over the neighbouring rooftops. Half an hour after putting an ad in the Post Office window, the doorbell rang and she had a tenant. 

     Richard was one of those people it is impossible to dislike, mid-forties, with an engaging smile and honest blue eyes. He worked at the university – Beryl didn’t fully catch exactly what he did there – and was ready to move in immediately. The next day, a Saturday, Richard returned with a hired van and a younger, equally personable friend, Charlie. Beryl had never seen so many boxes – she couldn’t imagine they would all fit in the flat. She made everyone a cup of tea, and discovered that Charlie was moving in too. 

     I hope you’ll have room for all your - things,’ said Beryl. She didn’t have a problem with Charlie, but Richard should have mentioned him. 
     ‘We love it here already,’ said Richard. 

The following morning Beryl heard a tap at her door. It was Richard, plate in his hand. ‘I wanted to try out the oven,’ he said. ‘I hope you like brownies.’

     Beryl knew it would ruin her appetite – she was going out for lunch – but didn’t wish to appear rude. The brownie was warm from the oven and gooey in the middle. Richard insisted she sat down to eat it. It was far too big - too rich – and Beryl felt queasy. It was a struggle to keep it down, except that Richard was standing over her. 

     ‘Someone loves chocolate!’ he exclaimed. ‘Next time I’ll make my Better Than Sex Cake. You’re going to love it.’

     Beryl didn’t like that kind of talk. ‘Not specially for me – please! I have to be careful what I eat nowadays.’

     ‘Listen to yourself!’ said Richard. ‘You’re no age at all.’ 

     Richard picked up the plate and made as if to leave. His hand was on the door handle when he turned and said, ‘Oh, I almost forgot! You were right, what you said yesterday - we are a bit tight on space up there. 

     ‘If it’s not asking too much, could we take you up on your offer of storing a few boxes down here, till we sort ourselves out? In a corner, out of your way?’

     Beryl couldn’t recall offering anything of the sort, but it was true, she had plenty of room. She showed him into the small back bedroom once occupied by her daughter, apologizing for the d├ęcor. 

     ‘Does your daughter live locally?’ asked Richard. 

     ‘Dubai. I’m hoping to fly out to see her later in the year. Will this do?’

     ‘Perfect – it’s just for the time being. Just one thing, though, would it be too much to ask for a key into your part of the house? You know, in case we need something from one of our boxes, and you’re out? Also, if you’re going away…’

     Beryl gave him a key. It was a good idea, to be honest, in case she ever lost hers, or locked herself out. 

     When she returned from lunch, Beryl knew the boys had been at work - she could smell their aftershave. Caroline’s room was stacked high with stuff and there were more in the corner of her own bedroom. On her kitchen table was a vase of freesias – her favourite. Thank you for making us feel so at home, read the note.

Beryl and her husband had shared a passion for gardening, and in its heyday the garden at number 15 had been the prettiest in the street. Beryl regarded it as a matter of honour that she should not let standards slip now he was gone.

     The front garden was partly paved, for Beryl to park her car, with hanging baskets at the door and flowerbeds round the edge. At the back was a patio, shed and lawn, screened by flowering shrubs and with an island bed in the middle. 

     The theme was colour - the more of it the merrier. The display started in April with wallflowers and tulips, in a brilliant burst of yellow, red, pink, purple and bronze. Then came the kaleidoscope of midsummer - flaming marigolds, mauve fuchsias, scarlet salvias and tumbling blue lobelias, interwoven with purple geraniums and pink sweet peas. In August and September these were in turn outdone by a strident fanfare of multi-coloured dahlias, cerise lilies and neon nasturtiums.

     Beryl did not plan her planting schemes – they were happy accidents. The only colours she didn’t like were white (a wasted opportunity) and green (a necessary evil). A few years back she went as far as to order samples for an artificial lawn in turquoise, but thought she’d miss the weekly mow.

     It was now May: time for Beryl’s first big hit on the local garden centre. Richard and Charlie said they’d love to come along – it was a lot of lifting and loading for one person, so she was grateful. She dropped the pair off at the entrance and drove away in search of a parking space.

     It can’t have been more than five minutes before she returned. To her amazement, she saw the boys were wheeling trolleys, each of which was already three-quarters loaded. 

     ‘Gosh!’ said Beryl, brightly. ‘You’ve started without me.’ It wasn’t the way she liked to do things – she was a cautious chooser. 

     ‘What a great place!’ said Richard. Charlie hovered behind, smiling and nodding. There was something insipid, irritating about the younger one. 

     ‘I’ll need a few minutes, if you don’t mind,’ said Beryl. ‘I like to have a good look round before deciding.’

     ‘No problem – take your time. We’ve made a good start, though – white and blue, like you said.’

     Beryl harrumphed. Who ever mentioned white and blue? She looked longingly up and down the benches of young bedding plants – stripy mauve petunias, candy pink begonias and tufted yellow celosias. She had never seen such a choice, in such mouthwatering hues; it made her heart sing just looking at them. Richard was right, though - it was probably old-fashioned to mix up colours.

     She reluctantly picked up a tray of white alyssum and another of white tobacco plants – at least they would smell nice – and realized the boys had disappeared with the trolleys. She found them five minutes later, in animated conversation with a young staff member at the information point.

     ‘Thought we’d lost you!’ exclaimed Richard. ‘This charming young man has been telling us we need some fertiliser.’ That set them off laughing. ‘Let’s pick some up on the way out.’ (More chortling.)

     Beryl must have looked disapproving, because Richard said, ‘A little birdie tells me it’s time we went home.’

Richard and Charlie’s passion for gardening did not extend to the physical, so Beryl found herself with a busy afternoon ahead. She placed the little plants round the flowerbeds, then tucked each into its new home with a trowel-full of compost. Richard said something about planting in groups, to avoid a spotty effect. She didn’t know how he’d suddenly become such an expert – probably picked it up from some TV show. It was disconcerting to think she’d been doing it wrong all these years.

     Nevertheless, she was in a pleasant glow when she came in two hours later. Her tenants had taken to making extra when they were cooking, and leaving tasty meals in her fridge, for her to pop in the microwave. She felt peckish, and wondered what was on the menu.

     Instead of the usual lasagne or shepherd’s pie, her eyes alighted on a salad, wrapped in cling film. Celery, some lettuce, an unripe tomato. On top was a Post-it note: Bikini diet starts today! Really, it was too much. At least they couldn’t stop her having a glass of wine. Except they could: on the wine bottle, which had been emptied, was another note: No cheating!

It was the start of a trying few weeks for Beryl. She knew they meant well by watching her calories for her - we all feel better if we lose a pound or two. But she started having food dreams at night, and woke up with stomach pains.

     Then there was the shopping. Neither Richard nor Charlie drove, so it was only sensible she should do the supermarket run. It annoyed her, however, that they always rounded down their share of the bill, or neglected to pay altogether. As for the trips to IKEA: how she came to hate that place! The phoney room sets, the stench of meatballs, the queues.

     She tried to keep things in perspective. Her tenants were in other respects the soul of kindness – the best neighbours ever. In a sense, she had brought the IKEA problem on herself, by failing to object when the boys asked if they could spread out into her part of the house. Obviously, they couldn’t be expected to share her taste in furniture. And the IKEA stuff was cheap, which helped, as she usually ended up paying.

     Just sometimes, Beryl felt as if things were getting out of control. But who was there to talk to? Ron would have known what to do, she thought with a pang. As for Caroline, living thousands of miles away in a desert – she had her own problems, what with that penny-pinching husband and her psoriasis flaring in the heat. No, all in all, Beryl should consider herself lucky. 

In September, Richard announced that he and Charlie were feeling the pinch, and would it be okay if they took a short break from paying rent? Beryl had seen it coming. As far as she knew, neither of the pair had gone out to work for weeks, unless you counted dumping empties in the bottle bank across the road. 

     By this time she had also – in somewhat ill grace – taken over their cleaning and laundry. An infestation of mice had necessitated a visit to the top floor and Beryl – who hadn’t been up there for weeks – was disgusted by the the piles of dirty dishes, overflowing ashtrays and evil-smelling bathroom. A health hazard, that’s what it was. 

     Not long afterwards, she was ironing sheets (the boys were suddenly fussy about such things) when she heard a low rumbling. A lorry was reversing into her driveway, flattening the flowerbeds. Beryl ran out of the front door. ‘You can’t turn here!’ she cried. ‘You’re wrecking my garden.’

     ‘Delivery,’ the man yelled back. ‘Hot tub.’ And it was true. Despite their money troubles, her tenants had purchased a top-of-the-range heated Jacuzzi, complete with massage jets and whirlpool feature. The ‘spa’ (as Richard called it) was installed on the roofdeck. It took four hours to fill with water and Beryl was terrified the weight would bring down the ceiling in Caroline’s room below. 

     Richard said she could use it any time, but she shuddered at the thought. The roofdeck was in plain sight of the neighbours, and she had no intention of making an exhibition of herself.

Beryl’s feet had always been her weak point, and what her increasing workload, they were so sore she had taken to retiring to bed after supper. If she listened hard, she could make out what Richard and Charlie were saying in the room directly above, and that’s how she discovered that Charlie – the quiet one – was the mastermind, the one she really needed to fear. 

     Charlie was explaining to Richard that the next step was to get Birdie (the nickname had stuck – she hated it) to write her will. 

     ‘She probably already has one,’ said Richard.

     ‘Well, maybe she’d like to write a new one,’ said Charlie, with a chuckle. ‘It’ll give her peace of mind. She’s not too steady on her pins, and it would be awful if she took a tumble down the stairs without having her affairs in order.’

And so it was that Beryl found herself hiding in her garden shed on a drizzling November evening. For two weeks she had stood her ground and refused, but now her black-hearted adversaries had given her an ultimatum: sign the will today or you’ll regret it. 

     It was hard to think of any indignity to which she hadn’t already been subjected, but with those two, you could never be quite sure. Beryl had turned over the possibilities – would they brick her up? bury her alive? – and decided the best idea was to disappear.

     It had turned six, and she was trying to decide what to do next, when she heard a squeal. Peeping out of the cobwebby window of the shed, she looked up to the roofdeck and saw Richard slipping into the hot tub, followed shortly by Charlie. Naked, the two of them. 

     Gosh, they’d put on weight. Pink and bloated – not a good look.

     Beryl shut her eyes and concentrated: she knew this was her moment. She picked up the petrol can. 

     Silent as a cat, she slid across the garden and let herself into the house. Without turning on the lights, she felt her way into her kitchen and found the box of matches she kept by the stove. Next she crept upstairs, opened the door of Caroline’s room and emptied the petrol over the piles of cardboard boxes. It stank to high heaven. 

     The hardest bit was yet to come. Beryl crept up to the attic and into the boys’ flat. She could see out from the darkened bedroom to the roofdeck, where her tenants were cavorting the the floodlit tub.

     She darted across the bedroom and hid behind the curtains. She heard a guffaw and clink of glasses from the tub outside, then crawled across the carpet on her stomach and dropped the bolts on the roofdeck doors. Her prey was trapped!

     On the way out, Beryl saw the will which had caused so much trouble on the table. She snatched it up, ran downstairs, lit it by the corner and tossed it into Caroline’s petrol-drenched bedroom. There was an enormous whoomph and flash of flame, followed by crackles and hissing. Beryl closed the door against the blistering heat.

It was the talk of the neighbourhood for years, and eventually a tale passed from generation to generation, grandparent to grandchild. 

     First were the piercing screams, which drew most of the town to their windows. The screams were coming from the roof deck of number 15 – the one with the hot tub – where two naked, rather overweight middle-aged men were gyrating and waving their arms, with cries of Help! Save us!

     There were no drainpipes to slither down, and it was far too high for them to jump. The windows of the room directly beneath the roofdeck were bright with flame, spewing out smoke. Tongues of fire licked upwards, painting the roofdeck an infernal orange.

     The men must have suddenly felt the heat, because they threw themselves back in the hot tub and started splashing about. The bigger of the two then went into hysterics, shrieking about being boiled alive, at which point the other threw him a punch in the face and they both disappeared underwater. The commotion was too much for the structure of number 15. The masonry shifted with a groan, then there was a tremendous crash. 

     Beryl watched spellbound from the door of the garden shed. She felt the warmth of the fire on her skin - the spritz of warm water as the house came down - and later, the kind touch of firefighters, who wrapped her in a blanket and delivered her into the care of a neighbour.

     The crushed remains of Richard and Charlie were dug from the rubble the following day, but it was Beryl everyone felt sorry for. She’d warned the boys about those roofdeck doors, not to lock themselves out by mistake. As for the petrol, how could she have known they were daft enough to keep cans of fuel among the boxes in her spare room? Highly irresponsible – specially considering they were smokers. Surprising it didn’t happen sooner.

     Beryl collected the insurance on number 15 and sold it as a building plot. Her idea was to buy a little flat somewhere and go on lots of cruises, but Caroline and Neville, scenting cash, returned from the Middle East, pooled their money with Beryl and bought a house with a granny annexe in the Home Counties.  

     Beryl misses the good old days with Richard and Charlie, but the annexe has its own little garden, and Beryl – or Birdie, as she now likes friends to call her - plants it out in their memory, in white and blue.